Grandson of a famous lawyer and nephew of bishop Nicolas Pavillon, Pavillon was born and died in Paris. He first studied theology before renouncing this to become "avocat général" to the parliament of Metz. Before having spent ten years in that role, he had a reverse in his fortunes and returned to Paris. Suffering from gout and pensioned off by Louis XIV, he set up a salon to which high society flocked. "She found in him conversation that was fine and witty, clever and polite, instructive without being pedantic". Thus, against La Bruyère and without having asked for it, he was elected a member of the Académie française in 1691, then of the Académie des inscriptions in 1701.
Étienne Pavillon was an author of "vers de circonstance", in stanzas and madrigals, and of letters in verse or prose in the Voiture genre, gathered together for the first time in a posthumously-published volume, reissued several times between 1715 and 1750. Voltaire called him "doux mais faible Pavillon".